Without former U.S. President Donald Trump’s avid support for Israel’s diplomatic recognition in the Muslim world, the onus of new normalization deals will likely fall to Israel itself, which will either slow the normalization process down or shift its focus to more covert or specific relations. On Jan. 20, U.S. President Joe Biden assumed power, bringing with him numerous personnel and policy shifts, including in U.S.-Israeli relations.
- In recent months, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have all signed U.S.-brokered normalization agreements with Isreal, which the United States calls “the Abraham Accords.”
- Biden’s new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has expressed support for the overall Abraham Accords. But during his confirmation hearings on Jan. 19, he also suggested that other regional issues would take priority over normalization.
- No clear appointments from the Biden administration appear ready to replace the team led by former President Trump’s son-in-law and special advisor, Jared Kushner, that spearheaded normalization efforts.
The Biden administration is not signaling a strong interest in normalization, nor is it philosophically as likely to utilize the transactional means that helped its predecessor facilitate deals with countries like Sudan and Morocco. Trump’s uniquely close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to largely drive U.S. decisions made on Israel’s behalf over the past four years. Biden, however, is unlikely to continue Trump’s strong pro-Israel policies. Biden has also shown more interest in other regional affairs that will limit his administration’s bandwidth to address Israel’s normalization status.
- Normalization is not mentioned in Biden’s official foreign policy agenda. Nuclear negotiations with Iran, however, are. The Biden administration’s Middle East priorities also include reframing relations with Turkey to address behavior Washington sees as controversial, as well as addressing broader human rights concerns in the region.
- During his 2020 campaign, Biden pledged to oppose further Israeli annexations of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. He also promised to restore diplomatic and aid ties with the Palestinian Authority that the Trump administration had restricted.
- In exchange for normalization, the Trump administration helped remove Sudan’s U.S. designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which had limited the Northeast African country’s ability to receive aid and attract foreign investment for the past 27 years. The White House also recognized Morocco’s control of the disputed Western Sahara territory in exchange for Rabat formalizing its ties with Israel.
With Biden unlikely to strongly advocate for the Abraham Accords, the normalization process will change to localized considerations, driven more by incentives Israel can offer as well as mutual strategic interests. Israel will retain influence over U.S. arms sales to Arab countries. This means Israel could offer countries like Saudi Arabia the prospect of Israel lobbying on Riyadh’s behalf for future U.S. arms sales to the kingdom in exchange for normalization. Israel’s technology sector, higher education faculties, intelligence capabilities and defense equipment will also continue to pull countries toward normalization, especially those with mutual economic challenges and/or defense threats. Now that there is weaker U.S. pressure to join the Abraham Accords, Muslim countries where domestic opinion remains opposed to diplomatic ties with Israel will likely focus on siloing their Israeli relations into specific trade, technology, defense or intelligence transactions.
- The United Arab Emirates was able to ink a last-minute arms purchase on Jan. 20 for American F-35 combat aircraft and Reaper drones. This was largely made possible by Israel’s move to drop its so-called Qualitative Military Edge (QME) policy, which opposes advanced arms sales to even friendly Arab Gulf states for fear of the arms falling into the wrong hands, as part of its normalization deal with Abu Dhabi.
- With Saudi King Salman’s opposition to normalization without a Palestinian state, Saudi Arabia has chosen to engage in covert intelligence ties as a substitute for overt diplomatic and defense ties. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also reportedly held covert meetings with Netanyahu. Without U.S. pressure, this is unlikely to change.
- Before Trump’s term ended, Indonesia was also reportedly nearing a U.S.-brokered normalization deal that involved up to $2 billion in U.S. aid to Jakarta. But future progress on that deal is now uncertain under Biden. Indonesia purchased Israeli defense equipment in the 1970s, but substantial opposition among Indonesian Islamists has proved to be an obstacle to further deepening the country’s relations with Isreal.